In September 2012 they will have been working together for five years. Stef Aerts, Matteo Simoni, Thomas Verstraeten, Bart Hollanders and Marie Vinck met while studying at the Artesis Hogeschool, the former Herman Teirlinck Institute. Technical expert Joé Agemans joined the ‘Foute Club’ – Improper Club - as a core member of the artistic team after De rotsebreker, the first production they made together outside the walls of the institute. De rotsebreker was an unusual amalgam of scenes from Claus’ Het leven en de werken van Leopold II and Tom Lanoye’s Fort Europa. Claus’ text was given a grotesque makeover with mistaken musical scenes, an inflated elephant and extras wearing black makeup to look like ‘niggers’ – good chaotic fun which was countered by the occasional sober passage of text from Fort Europa. It was after this first production that FC Bergman felt the need to be a company rather than an ‘Improper Club’. In 2008 some members of the group created an anarchistic adaptation of Harold Pinter’s Homecoming, De thuiskomst. Pinter’s generally very cool and restrained family drama unfolded on top of a mountain of junk, rubbish and food waste. Cool and restrained? FC Bergman wrecked the ‘set’, drove cars onto the stage and unashamedly deployed a dirty, dialectic pidgin language. This fast and furious De thuiskomst blew the audience away and won the company the Young Theatre Prize at the Theater Aan Zee 2009. That same year Monty invited the whole company for a year’s residency. During that time FC Bergman put on several smaller shows, but the most significant in terms of its future direction was Voorproef op fragmenten van een nieuwe wereld (Foretaste of fragments of a new world) with stylistic echoes of De rotsebreker. Voorproef was an installation, consisting of a series of theatrical machines. FC Bergman erected them in the space of a week and on the seventh day they were switched on in the presence of the public. That wondrous creation in which sheep fly through the air and stars fall out of the sky initially promised an ideal, makeable world… until the machines failed. The surrealistic nature of Voorproef cried out for further research. In 2009 that research found a masterly outlet in a production with the unwieldy name Wandelen op de Champs-Elysées met een schildpad om de wereld beter te kunnen bekijken, maar het is moeilijk thee drinken op een ijsschots als iedereen dronken is (Walking along the Champs-Elysées with a tortoise so as to have a better look at the world, but it is difficult to drink tea on an ice floe if everyone is drunk). Loosely inspired by Dante’s Divina Commedia, the show had its première in the neo-Gothic Old Stock Exchange on the Meir in Antwerp and stunned the Flemish theatre world with its untamed passion, rough physical directness, baroque poetry and bold scale. Five characters practised immortality. Puny fellows wandered round the gigantic performance space, each with his own strategy for defying death. In the associative succession of tableaus various mediums were deployed with acting, pyrotechnics, performance and choreography going on the razzle. The show was ‘big’ in the literal sense too: on more than one occasion the spectator’s eye was led heavenwards by a crane several metres high, a larger than life-size puppet and acting high up on the side balconies. Much went wrong technically and dramatically but this was glossed over in the light of the extraordinary events. There, in the Old Stock Exchange the perception was created of FC Bergman as a provocative collection of loose cannons – a perception which, five years on, is certainly in need of revision.
They may be celebrating their first lustrum, but the six are still young and FC Bergman has lost none of its temperament or ambition. But the DIY experience of recent years has borne fruit. The charming amateurism has made way for technical professionalism and the expressive recalcitrance for a more judicious maturity. FC Bergman has grown in strength. The energy flows undiminished, but rather than being strewn recklessly around, it is directed at that one overriding ambition: to seize the full tragedy of life, ever more acutely, ever more precisely, ever more pitilessly. It’s what is known as ‘learning the trade’. It’s what’s called ‘growing up’.
Tilting at windmills
FC Bergman’s early oeuvre is sometimes said to be ‘two track’. On the one hand, there are the text-based productions like De thuiskomst (The Homecoming) and that second Pinter directed by Stany Crets, Het verjaardagsfeest (The Birthday Party) which was premièred at Theater Aan Zee 2010. In the latter, Pinter’s text was transformed into a grotesque, nonsensical farce performed in the canteen of a rowing club in Ostend. On the other hand, there are the fairly frequent wordless, monumental and visual shows like Wandelen op de Champs-Elysees… (Walking along the Champs-Elysées…) and 300 el x 50 el x 30 el, which was put together for Antwerpse Kleppers 2011 in the space of a few weeks. Yet both tracks diverge less than might at first appear. Whether the shows are carried by text or by image, the same attitude to life underlies them: a tragic existentialism in which man tilts futilely at the windmills of his life. It is a battle fought with unevenly matched weapons, because life cannot be made – where there is a will there is at best, well, a will. Yet the naïve human being goes on trying to fight his lot, against his better judgment. In so doing he bangs his head against the wall, falls down, scrambles to his feet and then tries again. In De thuiskomst wonder boy Teddy imagines he was able to throw off his marginal roots, but that illusion is smashed to smithereens. In Wandelen op de Champs-Elysées…, ‘Crane Man’ does neat little laps in his yoke, until he begins to run in an attempt to reach his dream wife and centrifugal force enables him to fly, chained and free at the same time. That last image contains an essential component of Bergman’s work, a necessary counterpart which makes the dark portrayal of mankind bearable: the recognition of the beauty of every attempt to escape. That beauty, the beauty of the powerless repetition, generates a meaning that lifts FC Bergman above a deterministic nihilism: the pointlessness of life is filled with the belief in man’s struggle to find meaning. By visualizing that beauty the company reaches out tenderly to the man in the street. And that has a chastening effect. It does not need to go beyond chastening: the condition humaine is not condemned, no combative moves are made to make it bearable. The company is not given to political statements – FC Bergman is not looking to whack the audience hard in the face but to “kill it gently with a story that is understandable the world over, in all countries and by all audiences”. A story that provides comfort without being moralistic.
Caution! Hazardous show
The existential story is investigated by FC Bergman in ever different forms, which are pervaded with their intrinsic premise: the realization of the impossible, the beauty of the endeavour. A choreography involving scores of extras in Wandelen op de Champs-Elysees…? Acting on top of a huge pile of rubbish as in De thuiskomst? Bringing a complete pine forest onto the stage as in 300 el? Against its better judgment, FC Bergman erects impossible constructions and flirts with the limits of the conceivable and achievable. The shows must be hazardous, they must keep the spectator on the edge of his seat. Not necessarily by means of physical stunts, but by building in risky elements or a considerable margin of unpredictability. Why? Because the spectator has a right to a totally unique, unreproducable event. Theatre as an event – it recalls the performances of the 1970s which centred on the body and its direct presence. But with FC Bergman these hazardous moments are not the only material; rather they are built in as unsettling little explosions in a well-defined aesthetic universe whose craving for beauty refers to the 80s. The ‘performance moments’ are the excesses of life, the attempts to break out of the proposed framework. The disquieting flou artistique, the deliberate vagueness, is torn to shreds by direct… authenticity. Not in the sense of realism, but in the sense of genuineness: what happens happens in the here and now, with a living body, and it comes damned close. Combined and contrasted with the sublime world which had been so carefully built, these ‘breakthroughs’ hit home hard. They leave the spectator wide-eyed with amazement.
What do these moments of real danger consist of? The most obvious is FC Bergman’s barefaced acting style. While De thuiskomst may impose a strict framework dramatically, within it the actors smoke and drink with abandon, thereby setting the acting free, making it looser, edgy. The fights between the characters in Wandelen op de Champs-Elysées… – laconic stage direction: “Give each other a good beating” – result in battered and bruised limbs. As well as this rough, physical acting other choices with regard to form also reveal a desire to break out. Working with animals, children or amateurs for example. The bestial scenes in Wandelen op de Champs-Elysées… produce outrage, but the unpredictability of the animal ‘actors’ did introduce the desired risk factor. In the mass choreography in the same show scores of extras try and perfect a dance together, whereby children of seven dance alongside men of seventy-seven. It’s a far cry from synchronism, but no matter – it’s the endeavour that counts. Lastly, FC Bergman’s desire to seek out danger is perhaps most clearly translated in the logical choice of site-specific theatre, where the location of a show is not only a co-actor, but even a co-maker. A production on a deserted beach on Terschelling tells a different story from the same show performed on an industrial estate in Amsterdam. However much a production’s concept is worked out in advance, once FC Bergman arrives on location – and often that is no more than about four weeks before the première – nothing is definite, everything can and will be reviewed. By definition touring means recreating. The result at the end of the tour is a whole host of variations on the same production. And the theatre? Perhaps that is the location par excellence, because there more than anywhere viewing codes need to be overturned. FC Bergman also plays the theatre as a location. Let people look elsewhere and look in a different way, alter their viewing pattern, catch their eye.
The 1970s, the 1980s? Of course the members of FC Bergman are also children of their own time, as evidenced by (among other things) the collage-like construction of their productions and the eclecticism of their sources of inspiration – from Camus to Walt Disney, from Lars von Trier to Pina Bausch, from pornography to the Bible and everything in-between. FC Bergman surfs along on the exuberance and gusto of the Y generation, a generation that has everything, can do everything, expects everything. It is no coincidence that hanging in their workshop is a map of the world on which the impending conquest of the world is drawn… Note, too, the group’s makeup. FC Bergman consists of six different personalities with the most diverse projects of their own, ranging from films through visual art to theatre and television. In the first instance what that abundance of stimuli gives back to the company can only be productive, but the combination of characters and careers is also explosive. Explosive, and consequently… finite. That is why the fruits of this thriving tree should be picked now. That is why FC Bergman greedily grabs the opportunities which present themselves in the here and now: not guardedly, not cautiously, but greedily and insatiably.
Beyond the romantic
And it was time they did so. The image of young tearaways and stuntmen, which really took root after Wandelen op de Champs-Elysées…, began to close on the company’s heels. Rock-‘n-roll rules, but the romantic image of the young dogs’ lunacy gradually clouded people’s view of their work. They had in any case reached the limits mentally and physically: for the production FC Bergman had in mind, a large-scale opera based on the epic Van de Vos Reynaerde (About Reynard the Fox), it was no longer possible to work without a fixed structure. It was essential for the company to make the move to the Toneelhuis if it was to grow not only artistically but also technically. The 2010 production 300 el x 50 el x 30 el proved a test case for both parties. Bergman built a village on stage, complete with village square and pine forest in the background. The village is gripped by the fear of an imminent flood – the inhabitants act more and more strangely, verging on psychosis. A camera on wheels peers into houses all over the village and the images of what is happening inside them are projected onto a large screen. However absurd the idea, when it came to realizing this impossibility, FC Bergman managed to get the whole of the Bourla’s technical team on side. So Guy Cassiers has been warned: he knows what he is taking on. But perhaps secretly he is unperturbed, for it is highly unlikely that FC Bergman will become politically correct while at the Toneelhuis. Rather, there is the expectation, perhaps even the hope, that the six actors will shake that great house to its core.
Evelyne Coussens, May 2012